john skinner

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On making mistakes

[The brilliant mathematician Yutaka Taniyama] was gifted with the special ability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.
Goro Shimura, quoted in Simon Singh's excellent book Fermat's Enigma 

Isn't that a wonderful attitude? Can you imagine how much happier our lives could be, if we all felt that way? Or how much more productive our work could be, if our bosses felt that way?

Take courage! Don't be afraid of mistakes. Mistakes are good for you. Mistakes are useful: they are a chance to learn something new, or to improve on the way you do something.

A mistake is a signpost to knowledge in the desert of ignorance: you are still in the desert, but now you know the way out.

Believe me on this, if on nothing else again: I know whereof I speak. I taught programming for four years at Intergraph, and told my students to "try to make a new mistake every day". It was always the case that students who worked slowly and carefully through the exercises, making no mistakes, learned much less than others who pushed ahead cheerfully making mistakes by the dozen — because the latter then learned from their mistakes*. If only I'd then known of Goro Shimura's tribute to his colleague, I would have had it printed out banner size and hung above my desk.

One key to effective [your job description here] is to make mistakes quickly, learning from them each time. Making a mistake is no sin. Failing to learn from a mistake is.
Steve McConnell, in Code Complete. Every programmer regardless of language or environment should read this, and most people who manage "intellectual work" projects could learn from it too.

As long as you have never made a mistake in a specific area, then the possibility remains open that you haven't understood it. Maybe your successes were due to blind luck.

It's possible to misunderstand something completely, yet still arrive by chance at the right answer. Imagine a shortsighted child in the classroom: teacher writes "2+3=?" on the board; child copies down "2x3=" and calculates this to be "5". Is that the right answer? If the teacher sees only the result, she will think the child has understood arithmetic — when in fact he hasn't got a clue. But as long as his miscalculations match the right answers, he'll get a better grade than another student who has grasped the principles but has trouble with the mechanics.

The teacher has no hope of spotting the child's problem unless he makes a (visible) mistake; and as long as he is rewarded for getting the "right" answer, the child is unlikely to question his own grasp on the world. The longer this continues, the harder it will be for all concerned to recognize and accept the truth.

… daß diese Furcht zu irren, schon der Irrtum selbst ist. [The fear of making a mistake, is itself the greatest mistake.]
G.F.Hegel, writ large above the entrance to the Stuttgart train station

The commonest reason for being afraid of mistakes, is the belief that they reflect on your worth as a person. This is nonsense. Consider a small child throwing a ball to her mother, and a professional baseball player earning his salary. Which one makes the most mistakes (meaning: throws most ineptly)? Yet which of them is most likely to be let into Heaven? There is no more a necessary connection between mistakes and moral worth, than there is between wealth and moral worth. (This will be the subject of a future Public Service Announcement.)

If you never make a mistake, then you have stopped developing personally and professionally. This is not a desirable state of being. It's not even practicable in these days of "continuous learning" and "professional development". If you don't grow and change, then you will not last in your job — or your relationships.

A clever man learns from his mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
Any fool can defend his or her mistakes — and most fools do.
Dale Carnegie
Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
Brian Eno

* It's also possible that this was just a natural process: happy, confident people always learn more faster than unhappy, cautious people — unless they get overconfident and become roadkill.
Copyright © John Skinner, 2002. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2003.04.18